Just what is Fellside, the newest novel from The Girl With All the Gifts author M. R. Carey? Is it a horror story set inside a women’s penitentiary? A ghost story of elusive redemption? A legal thriller where one young lawyer’s dogged determination can tip the scales of justice? A taunt modern drama of power and corruption played out in a near feral world of incarceration?
Jess Moulson has been dubbed in the press as the Inferno Killer, when a fire she set in a heroine haze kills the ten year old boy in the apartment above her rather than the abusive live-in boyfriend that she supposedly had been targeting. That Jess herself was badly burned did nothing to assuage her image, and by the time the guilty verdict was rendered, she was all but convinced that she had been the cause of Alex Beech’s death, even though she had no memory of setting the fire, nothing but the vaguest memories of that night at all. She was a broken woman, not just because of her injuries or her pending incarceration, but because Alex Beech had been her friend.
Or, at least she had tried to be his friend. As far as she knew, she was the only friend the boy had, even though all she had ever really done was take hot cocoa or a sandwich out to him as he sat huddled on the landing while his parents screamed at each other in the apartment behind him. Once she had given Alex her phone number, in case he needed someone to call. He never called, but he ate the sandwiches and drank the cocoa, leaving the empty dishes behind.
And now he is dead, because of her.
By the time Jess is transferred to Fellside, the notorious maximum-security women’s prison on the bleak Yorkshire moors, she has vowed to commit suicide via voluntary starvation. Guilt and despair – not just at Alex’s death, but at the constant slate of failures and mistakes that she has made of her life – have taken away her will to live, and the privately run institution will not interfere at the risk of appearing brutish by feeding her by force. But just as she is on the brink of death, she is pulled back by a feather light touch and a voice that tells her, “Hold on.” This apparition, this dream, this ghost guiding her back from the abyss – Jess knows it’s Alex. And he asks for her help.
Author M. R. Carey is courageous in placing his main character in a woman’s penitentiary, given the popularity of another major entertainment associated with that generalized locale. But make no mistake: Fellside is definitely NOT Orange is the New Black (with Ghosts). This huge, soulless maximum security prison and the hardened, discarded people there (inmate and employee alike) have almost no redeeming values; even those who thought at one time to better themselves or make a difference have been beaten and maneuvered into, at best, going through the motions unheeded, or more often being used by the brutal and violent powers in play. In this book, few care about redemption, and even fewer are worthy of it. Everyone at Fellside is trapped by a powerful few, and escape is not an option.
But while Fellside itself is definitely at the crux of the story, other elements keep the narrative from being too focused on surviving the prison element (although that does affect every angle and ever plot line). One of the most compelling aspects of the story, in my opinion, is the tenacious efforts of junior solicitor Paul Levine in finding the cracks in Jess’s original case. I am drawn to his part of the story, not necessarily due to the actions he takes but in the motivations for his tenacity, which are both heartbreaking and uplifting in a tale where there is scant evidence of either.
Yet at its heart, Fellside is a ghost story (in the same way that The Girl With All the Gifts is a zombie story), and it is in these passages that Mr. Carey takes his tale into truly divergent territory. The “Other Place”, the dreamscape, the abyss – all of these are familiar in concept, but they are rendered clearly and vividly in Fellside, almost with a cinematic sweep.
Yet it is the ephemeral development of Alex himself that I found the most compelling, the most touching, and in the end, the most dramatic (one doesn’t often expect their literary ghosts to “develop” in character; evolve, maybe, but Alex definitely transcends this). I don’t want to go into further detail because it is the unfolding of all the various plots and awarenesses that are at the heart of Fellside, and I certainly don’t want to spoil anything for you. Suffice it to say, this book is nothing like what you might expect, and all that you might hope for in a – for lack of a better term – modern ghost story.
~ Sharon Browning